Professor Samuel L. Myers, Jr., the Roy Wilkins Professor of Human Relations and Social Justice, is an expert on race and ethnicity. He spent the 2008-09 academic year as a Senior Fulbright Research Fellow at the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, China, with the intention of studying inequality and ethnic diversity and making comparisons between Chinese and American society.
Myers did conduct that research but along the way he also became an "accidental analyst" of disability policy in China.
Myers, who is hearing impaired, had agreed to conduct interviews as part of the selection process for a special Fulbright program for Chinese doctoral students and post-docs. Because it is difficult to find certified real-time captioners in China, Myers arrived at the American Embassy for the interviews armed with his laptop and an arrangement for remote captioning. Remote captioning involves captioners who are located "remotely" from the meeting site and listen to and caption meetings via a speakerphone.
"I have used remote captioning all over the world," says Myers.
But not in a U.S. Embassy building in China. As recent news about Google's decision to redirect users of its Google.cn search site to its uncensored site in Hong Kong revealed, the Chinese government monitors internet traffic within the country. The U.S. Embassy would not allow an unsecured internet connection, meaning no remote captioning.
"All of a sudden, I became the subject of controversial conversation about disabilities," Myers recalls.
That experience and the opportunity to meet with leaders in the disability advocacy community in Beijing gave Myers the idea of applying economic analysis tools to the question of income and other disparities among those with and without disabilities in China.
"My original intent was to provide a statistical analysis of how individual income relates to disability, but what's really more interesting is the politics of disability policy in China," he says.
Following on the United Nations declaration of 1981 as International Year of Disabled Persons, China conducted its first scientific count of persons with disabilities in 1987, finding 4.6 percent of the population to be disabled. The Chinese government has in recent years enacted a variety of new laws, including the Law on the Protection of Disabled Persons, Regulations on the Education of Persons with Disabilities, and the Regulations on Employment of Persons with Disabilities, to acknowledge the rights of China's estimated 82.7 million persons with disabilities and, in 2008, ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
But, says Myers, unlike the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, which provides uniform measures of protection against discrimination, or the Social Security Disability Insurance, which also provides federal uniformity in income support programs for those with disabilities, there really is no national program in China to provide income and other support for those with disabilities. "It doesn't matter if you are deaf in New Mexico or blind in New Hampshire, everyone who meets the same eligibility, work history, and dependent qualifications receives the same treatment," Myers says, referring to Social Security Disability Insurance, which provides income support and subsidized medical care to qualified applicants in the United States.
Instead, health, education, and employment services in China are provided by a network of Disabled Persons' Federations spread throughout the country. The burden is not on employers and government agencies to provide rights and protections but on the person with the disability to complain about discrimination. China has no policy on accommodations for persons with disabilities, and medical care and subsidies largely are a local government responsibility, with sizeable variations across provinces.
It is a reactive policy, says Myers. "The policy does not ask, 'what can I do in order to assure that people with pre-existing disabilities can be fully employed so as to increase the probability of fulfilling their promise.'"
As Myers was considering the differences in income for majority Han and minority populations in urban and rural China, he used a similar lens to look at income disparities between those with and without disabilities in city and country settings.
With the help of Professor Ding Sai, his colleague at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Myers analyzed the Chinese Household Income Project Survey (CHIPS) data from 2002. Merging the urban and rural data sets, he found that, while 3.1 percent of the total populations surveyed were disabled, 6.1 percent of urban dwellers reported being disabled. Further limiting the data set to those of employment age (between the ages of 18 and 60) revealed similar results.
Myers found that there was a higher disability rate in urban areas than in rural areas; that healthy, working-aged persons with disabilities had lower incomes than persons without disabilities; that equally qualified persons with disabilities had lower incomes; and that much of the gap in income is unexplained.
"Economists call that unexplained gap discrimination," says Myers.
Myers presented these results to Chinese academics and scholars at a number of institutions, including Tsinghua University, Inner Mongolia University, and Yunnan University for Nationalities.
The comments and explanations they put forward interested Myers. Some hypothesized that disability status is under-reported in rural areas because of the stigma attached to having a disability. Some argued that disabled children in rural areas were subject to infanticide or abandonment because, without Social Security or a guaranteed pension system, rural residents rely on healthy adult child to take care of them in their old age.
"Disability statistics in China are very political," says Myers. "As Stanford University anthropologist Matthew Kohrman argues, there is a desire to produce a final disability count that was 'not too high or too low,' one that balances the desire for scientific validity with the need for national stability."
Now Myers is more than an "accidental analyst." He has begun to compare disability policies and disparities in earnings of persons with disabilities in the United States and China. Myers and his colleagues will present their findings at the Pacific Rim 2009 Conference at the Center on Disability Studies at the College of Education at the University of Hawaii.